October 1 2021
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then it’s not surprising that things got a tad emotional when the Hallé walked onto the RCH stage again on Friday night. Perhaps the audience hadn’t fully realised what they had been missing until that moment, but maestro Sir Mark Elder gratefully acknowledged Nottingham’s enthusiasm and a bargain was cemented: glorious playing repaid by an almost overwhelming final ovation.
However, there was much more to this concert than its symbolism. It had been cleverly devised to concentrate minds on the wealth of music composed in the early years of the 20th century by an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Finn whose connections and individuality were celebrated.
The concert started with one of the nation’s favourite pieces: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, music which is rooted in the ancient past of Tudor church music as well as in the soil of rustic folk music. And it captivates an audience from its magical opening chord to its final fading into silence. It was written for a particular location: Gloucester Cathedral and it really needs huge spaces for its three string groups to expand and breathe. In the RCH the smaller string band was placed high up on the choir stalls, allowing the eyes to assist the ears appreciate the richly mysterious antiphonal effects. This must be music deep within the bones on the Hallé (can any orchestra have played it more?) but it had a freshness which perhaps belied recent over-exposure.
Dame Imogen Cooper was the soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concerto, a work with blithe, bubbly, jazzy outer movements. Her precision and control of tonal colour (and some very impressive trills) brought out sometimes unheard detail in the piece, even though the performance was relatively restrained. However, it was in the magical slow movement that her artistry really shone: here were mystery, tenderness and drama in abundance.
Before Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony the Hallé slipped in an extra piece: the short but mesmerising Song of Enchanter by Thea Musgrave, rooted in Finnish folklore, vividly atmospheric and paying tribute to Sibelius sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly.
It was the perfect curtain-raiser to the symphony, a work which starts with musical fragments and culminates in an eruption of unrestrained melody, of the most sumptuous and romantic variety. The Hallé and Sir Mark recorded it not long ago and the music is still in their veins: rich string playing, much poignancy from the woodwind and unfettered power from the brass. Sir Mark brought each section to their feet at the end to acknowledge the applause. The audience didn’t hold back.
Sir Mark Elder conductor
Dame Imogen Cooper piano